Thursday, December 18, 2008

Plus ça change

The world is going to hell in a handbasket. Books aren’t what they used to be. Publishers have cut way back on editing and the quality of books is suffering as a consequence. Why when I was a youngster…

Or maybe not.

A book emerged in the living room the other day, one that I think was actually a gift to me from my wife last Christmas, in a stack of other books, and that I lost track of. It was something she picked up in a used book store. Or maybe it was something I picked up myself in a used book store and forgot about. In any case, as our cat had an accident yesterday, I needed to take the bedspread to the laundromat today, and I grabbed the book to have something to read there. The book is The Old Post Road: The Story of the Boston Post Road, by Stewart H. Holbrook, published in 1962 by McGraw-Hill as part of “The American Trails Series Edited by A.B. Guthrie, Jr.” Its point of interest in this household is that it’s local history. Neither of us grew up here, so we didn’t learn the local history in school.

The book is well made, as befits the product of a major publisher, but it is badly written and badly edited. If I’d been A.B. Guthrie, Jr., I’m not sure I’d have wanted my name on the cover. In just the first few chapters the author repeats anecdotes and phrases conspicuously enough that a competent editor should have noticed. He wanders back and forth in time with no obvious plan, returning to a period he’s already covered to relate an afterthought, for example, then jumping ahead a century, then back again, all the while jumping from one end of the road to the other to points in between. My head is spinning.

What’s my point? Publishers were making sausage then, too. Most books have always been bad books. Good books are a rarity to be treasured.

Make good books. I try to do that; you should too.

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